Launching “Ask The President” on Twitter

Original draft March 16.  Revised March 19.

The genesis of Ask the President

“Net movement” journalist/activist Ari Melber’s latest brainstorm, Ask the President, is launching on March 19 at http://www.communitycounts.com/Obama.   The basic idea is to provide a followon to Change.gov’s short-lived Open for Questions series [1, 2]: a way for people to submit potential questions and vote on what they think the best ones are.  It’s an intriguing idea, with the possibility of providing a path around the media gatekeepers who have historically controlled access.

Here are some thoughts about how Tweeple (people on Twitter) who support the idea can help with Ask the President‘s launch.

If you’re new to Twitter — or skeptical about it — Deanna Zandt’s two-part series “Why Twitter, anyways?“  and “A non-fanatical beginner’s guide to Twitter” is a great introduction.  Rebecca Leaman’s Introduction to Hashtags on Wild Apricot is also useful background on how  words or abbreviations preceded by # are for organizing informationyou’ll be seeing a lot of them in this post.

Strategy

There are at least three ways to create buzz on Twitter

  1. political hashtags like #gov20 (“Government 2.0″), #tcot (“top conservatives on Twitter”), #rebelleft, and #bipart (“bipartisan discussions”) reach people likely to be interested in getting involved and finding out more
  2. whenever somebody tweets*, anybody who’s following them sees it.  So getting the “twiterati”, folks who have lots of or influential followers, to tweet about Ask the President on Thursday can be very helpful.
  3. Twitter’s search page has a list of the top 10 “trending topics”, the words or phrases that are being used most often in the Twitterverse.  Once something gets on this list, a lot of people start to notice it and discuss it, which in turn lets their followers know what’s happening.  “Why is everybody talking about Skittles?”  “Because Skittles’ changed their web site check out http://skittles.com”.  Can AskThePresident crack the top 10?

These aren’t either-or options, of course.  Getting somebody with a lot of followers to tweet about AskThePresident and include the right hashtags helps with #1 and #2.  When their followers retweet**, it starts to help with #3 as well.

Hashtags

Ask the President’s hashtag is #askpres.  So you can use Twitter search or a Twitter client to see all the tweets about Ask the President.

There are a lot of existing Twitter hashtags whose readers are likely to be interested in Ask The President.  As well as political ones from all sides of the aisle, there are also communities whose concerns typically don’t get covered in White House press conferences.   Feminists, women of color, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered, and others who are marginalized potentially have a huge amount to gain from this if they’re able to organize and participate effectively.  So hashtags like #fem2, #woc, #lgbtq are likely to be very effective channels.

Especially as things are getting off the ground, it’ll add a lot more credibility if somebody already well-known to the readers of a specific hashtag tweets about Ask the President.  Here’s a situation where retweeting helps.  A possible sequence, once the site goes live on Thursday:

  • @AskThePresident kicks it off with a tweet to #gov20 #bipart (to emphasize it’s a bipartisan web 2.0 project), including a link to their web site
  • conservatives on #bipart retweet to #tcot, #sgp, #teaparty and other conservative tags; progressives retweet to #p2, #rebelleft, and #topprog
  • feminists, women of color, and lgbtq activists on some of these other hashtags retweet to #fem2, #woc, #lgbt, #tgot, and so on

One way to increase the chances of this happening is for Ari or the @AskThePresident account to ask the various hashtags for help in advance — for simplicity, linking to this post explain the situation.

@AskThePresident: hey all could you help launch @AskThePresident on Thurs? thx! http://is.gd/nEqk #bipart #sgp #rebelleft #tcot #gov20 #p2 #fem2 #woc #lgbtq

This way, once tweets start showing up on Thursday, people will be more likely to get involved.

The Twitterati

Once the site and Ari’s article are up and we know what URLs to use, it’d be useful to contact the people who are likely to be interested.  To start with, there are zillions of lists of who on Twitter has the most followers.  Twitterholic has a nice layout of the top 100 overall; #tcot‘s got a top-100 list of conservatives; and so on.  For example, using the Twitter convention of ‘@’ to reply or refer to somebody:

@maddow @ricksanchezcnn please encourage MSNBC and CNN listeners to vote on #askpres !   more at ….

Something important to keep in mind: almost all of these lists are 75% or more male*** and overwhelmingly white.  Women of color are virtually invisible..   So to get more diverse participation in Ask The President, it’ll also be important to prioritize contacting well-connected women, blacks, Latin@s, Asians, and Native Americans who aren’t on the “top” lists.

Trying to connect with important people on Twitter is a lot like any other online communication style.  Take the time to craft a post that conveys you know something about their work.  Keep it clear and precise.  And don’t expect a response — they’re deluged by so many requests like this that the odds are against you.  Still, it’s worth a try.

And …

As blog posts and articles on AskThePresident come out during the day Thursday, people will naturally use Twitter to pass links around.  Combined with hashtag and twitterati outreach, will all this add up to enough to make it into the top 10 search terms?  A lot depends on how often things get retweeted. According to Retweetist, it’s not uncommon for a web 2.0-related story to get retweeted over 20 times; political stories usually don’t fare so well.  We shall see.

Of course, the initial launch is only the first flurry of activity.  By late in the day Thursday, people will presumably have worked out how be using Twitter to promote their Ask The President questions.  And on #followfriday, as well as recommending @AskThePresident, including the URL to the site gives a chance to find out more.  With luck, it’ll wind up near to the top of the charts in TopFollowFriday, Twitturly (and AllTop), and even make a decent showing in WeFollow’s relatively-new politics list.  And then on Monday night there’s #journchat.  Each of these channels spreads the word to different audiences.   Whee!

If this all seems overwhelming, well, welcome to the Twitterverse as of March 2009.   Using strategist Geoffrey Moore’s terminology, Twitter’s crossing the chasm of acceptance and is in the tornado of rapid adoption — with a highly networked, rapidly-changing, and suprisingly reflective (as well as self-absorbed) user base.  It’s a fascinating place to be.

I certainly don’t mean to overstate Twitter’s importance.  It’s much smaller than Facebook, MySpace, or the blogosphere; Ask The President‘s outreach in all of those environments (and the traditional media) is likely to determine its success.

Still, Twitter’s filled with journalists, activists, social media experts, bloggers, and other well-connected people; and it’s a great place for generating buzz.  So it’s worth taking it seriously and factoring it into launch plans.

Ask the President launches Thursday

jon

* posts a message, limited to 140 characters or less, on Twitter

** repost somebody else’s tweet, so that others can see it.

*** Twitter by contrast is 53% female. I’ve been exploring this topic in #women2follow: collaborative empowerment on Twitter.